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New York Film Festival 2021 Interview: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jane Campion and Ari Wegner Talk The Power of the Dog

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New York Film Festival 2021 Interview: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jane Campion and Ari Wegner Talk The Power of the Dog

Creating period dramas that are fueled by psychological complexity and repressed emotions has largely driven filmmaker Jane Campion’s career over the past three decades. From one of her most notable and recognizable works, the 1993 Academy Award-winning ‘The Piano,’ to her upcoming feature, ‘The Power of the Dog,’ the writer-director-producer consistently proves her talent of crafting intimate character studies. Her stories powerfully explore the consequences of external conflicts on the mentality of both the strongest and most vulnerable people.

Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name and set in 1925, ‘The Power of the Dog’ follows the drastically different Burbank brothers, Phil and George (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons). The two are wealthy ranchers in Montana, where they preside over a sprawling property on which they raise livestock and train horses. George handles the business side of the ranch, while Phil and his cowhands oversee the physical labor on the property.

While on a cattle drive trip, they stop at the Red Mill, a restaurant and rooming house, where they meet Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the establishment’s widowed proprietress, and her impressionable teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil behaves so cruelly to the mother and son that he drives them both to tears, and revels in their pan.

After Rose and George get married, they drop Peter off at medical school, and she accompanies her new husband back to the Burbank family’s mansion, much to Phil’s fury. He resents his brother’s new wife, and expresses his feelings by taunting her every chance he gets, including her for no longer being able to play the piano, which she used to do for a living. Phil also mocks her son’s lack of experience as a cowhand and what he believes to be the young man’s lack of masculinity. As a result, the new family struggles to find peace with each other, especially as they don’t understand their drastic differences and views on life.

The drama had its U.S. Premiere screening on the evening of Friday, October 1, 2021 at the 59th New York Film Festival (NYFF), which was presented by Film at Lincoln Center. Netflix distributed ‘The Power of the Dog,’ which served as the Centerpiece Selection at last year’s NYFF, in a limited theatrical release on November 17, 2021, and the Western is now available on the streaming platform.

Cumberbatch, Dunst, Smit-McPhee, Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner generously took the time on the afternoon of the feature’s U.S. Premiere to participate in a press conference at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, which was moderated by NYFF‘s Director of Programming, Dennis Lim. During the conference, the actors, actress, writer-director-producer and director of photography discussed

Dennis Lim (DL): Jane, can you tell us about how you discovered the 1967 novel, which isn’t that well known?

Jane Campion (JC): My dad’s second wife, Judith, is a great book reader – as a lot of New Zealanders are, actually – and she sent me the novel. I was just finishing the ‘Top of the Lake’ series and I read it, as you do a novel. Unlike many novels I read nowadays, I actually got more excited the further I got into it and found that the whole experience of reading this book was thrilling.

It felt like it was written by someone that really knew the world. At the back of the book, there’s actually an Afterword by Annie Proulx, which is really helpful in understanding the context in which Savage wrote the book.

I didn’t think about making a movie at first, but I just kept thinking of the themes in the story. Over the next few weeks, I really found it kind of haunting, in a really good way. So I started taking more and more steps to find out more about it, inlcuding if the rights were available.

DL: What were some of the themes that haunted you?

JC: Well, I think it’s clearly a really complex way of approaching masculinity because of its set on a ranch, which is normally a place where the values of masculinity are really highly valued. I think – as is shown in the film – there are some surprises about what people are keeping secret.

I think the pain of those expectations around masculinity – and I try not to use the words “toxic masculinity” – gave such a great sort of container, in a way, for studying and thinking about the men in this world. Of course, Phil Burbank is such an interesting study in masculinity, and also the character that Kodi plays, Peter, is another. He’s very feminine, which he’s comfortable with it, in a way that Phil finds to be really uncomfortable.

DL: Did you all read the book?

Benedict Cumberbatch (BC): Yes. It’s an amazing read. I always hope, in adapting a book, that one of the offshoots might be that people will pick it off the shelves and rediscover it, or discover it for the first time.

It’s got this amazing terseness in it. This poetry has a savage, violent beauty to it. Yet it tackles incredibly complex themes in a very deft way in the era in which it was written, which is brought very loudly to a modern sensibility. He can surmise a character in a line, a story in a page and a world in a chapter. It’s very beautiful writing.

I’m just remembering – I carry around the book with me quite a lot. I was the annoying actor bringing it to set all the time.

JC: He was the annoying actor on the set (Campion laughs.)

BC: I was always the annoying – well I was in character, so of course I was the annoying one. It’s a masterful blueprint, as far as approaching the role – for me, anyway. I found it opened up a hell of a lot of understanding of…the complex building blocks that make him.

DL: Kirsten and Kodi, do you want to weigh in on the book?

Kirsten Dunst (KD): I feel like Jane added more richness to Rose than what was on the page, for me. So, a little bit book, a lot of Jane and then me.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (KSM): I don’t have too much more to add, but of course there’s so many more layers and a lot more that you can explore in the book. But as you said, there was a lot more depth and things that we could explore and create as motivations and intentions for the characters in bringing it to life.

DL: Jane, you’ve adapted books for cinema before. I think even the films that you’ve had in this (festival) have always had quite a strong literary influence. Can you talk about the process of turning this into a screenplay? I think Kirsten is right, that you do more with the character of Rose than is in the book. But there are other aspects that are quite faithful in terms of certain family dynamics and psychology.

JC: I loved the book, so that was really a great help and a challenge as well. I also worked with my dear friend and colleague Tanya Seghatchian, who was incredibly helpful in discussing the structure and what we might leave out and what we were going to keep in. We decided we didn’t want to have flashbacks to another time, and try and tell it all in one time.

But the story is haunted by Bronco Henry. He’s a character that’s very big for the story but who we never see. We were trying to come up with ways creatively to have that understood or felt, which is easy in a book but really difficult (for a film).

Or things had to change and be created in order for us to be able to keep remembering how important this ghost lover was for the story and Phil Burbank. I think in the end, of course, those themes of the ghost, like for Kodi’s character Peter, that you know Phil is going to be his Bronco Henry. When you have to suppress your true feelings in your love, it’s safer to love a ghost.

DL: The book is often described as somewhat autobiographical. Did you do much research into Savage’s life, as well as Montana and that period?

JC: Yes, I did. Annie Proulx really opens that up in the Afterword that she wrote in the book. We also met relatives of Thomas Savage when we did some research and saw his ranch that he grew up in near Dillon in southwest Beaverhead, Montana.

So he came to the ranch in a very similar way to Peter, as his mother married Brenner. At that time, Ed Brenner was actually the inspiration for Phil Burbank, so there are quite a lot of similarities. We did actually ask, is there someone who might have been Broncho Henry? So they showed us a picture of the person that they thought could have been that inspiration, as well.

So Savage was a gay man and at that time, obviously wasn’t openly gay, and he actually married. When I saw the his photo and the jacket cover, he’s wearing the tennis shoes. That’s so important in the profile for Peter for me, so I imagine he thought of himself as Peter in a way.

But he also was a great horseman and broke horses. Actually, his first thing he wrote was about the breaking of a bronco. But he certainly did have a much more complex relationship to the romance about the West than most people did.

DL: Since we have the actors here, can you talk about assembling this incredible cast for the film, specifically with Benedict? Phil is quite a different part for you, from anything you’ve played before. Jane, what made you think of Benedict for this part?

JC: I was thinking, of course, of “Who could it be?” Benedict is somebody whose work I;ve always really loved since I saw the Ford Madox Ford (series) ‘Parade’s End,’ and then his recent television series as well, which is amazing. I just think he’s a really good actor, and that means a lot to me. I was looking for somebody who can take on this part without worrying what everyone’s going to think of them as they play a really cruel man. But you need someone who really wants that challenge.

Benedict, you read the script, and I think you said you were interested in the role, and that meant a lot to me. So we met, didn’t we?

Also, I think that Benedict has got this fantastic quality and ability to show vulnerability, which I think is so important for people connecting to a character like this. It could have been like you’ve been so put off and just went, “Oh, I don’t know about this person at all, I don’t want to know anything more.” But somehow Benedict managed to bring you into the inner world of the character in some sort of compassionate relationship with his pain.

BC: Thank you. It’s very weird having Jane Campion talk about you like this, but very nice at the same time. Thank you very much.

DL: Can you say a bit about preparing for the role? Obviously, there’s quite a few technical skills you had to pick up.

BC: I won’t bore you with a list of those. A lot of them didn’t even make the film, including some ironmongery and taxidermy. But roping, ranching, whistling, whittling, horse riding and banjo playing was a lot.

For me, it was about trying to imagine myself back into that world, which required a lot of subconscious and conscious work, and drip feeding the imagination over a long time. Jane gave me quite a lot of runway with this, which was a blessing for this role., as it was quite a sharp turn from a lot of things I’ve done before.

I started by going to Montana. I did a dude camp to try and get the dirt, blood and sensation of what it must be like to be doing that work with animals, people and that culture. A lot has changed since then, obviously.

But then it was about leaning in to the work of Grant Major, our production designer, and Noriko Watanabe, our hair and makeup designer. Jane also collaborated with them to piece together a kind of thing that felt good to move around in and allowed me to see my environment and understand it.

I felt like I was always reaching, and then there were those lovely moments when you stop reaching and you just let go. Jane brilliantly encouraged you to do that, and to stop worrying about the homework and just let vulnerability happen. There was a lot of space and time to do that, which is a rarity. That’s all credit to Jane’s female gaze, as well as her sensitivity as a human being and how she was directing the story, as well as Ari’s lens work.

These amazing actors, one of whom is not here on the stage, Jesse Plemons. In order to form a relationship with him, as my character’s brother, we hardly talked, however odd and competitive it was. But we had to do that, as we were in character all the time. But once I’d done that work, I was trying to be with him all the time. So we’re good friends now, but . . .

KD: We were friends on the weekends.

BC: We were friends at the weekend, which was very weird. I didn’t take my homework home with me.

DL: Jane, can you talk about the other actors?

JC: Yes, I wanted to also mention Jesse Plemons because he’s not here. But that was an absolute joy to work with him, and then you were really excited, too, Ben, to work with Jesse.

BC: I didn’t cast this film – I tried to. I did, I really pushed for Jesse. He was the only person I imagined in the role from the beginning for some reason. He was just there.

JC: But Jesse wanted your role.

BC: Everybody wanted my role.

JC: I think it’s beautiful to work with an actor like Jesse, and I of course had noticed his work already. But when you’re really there with him, he’s such a unique human anyway, and such a unique actor that he takes you two degrees more grounded into a character than I think you really ever see anywhere else.

Jesse also had to try and get my hyperactivity into a zone where you could actually get to talk to me, and he worked me. Then he’d get me into the caravan and say “Oh, you know when you did this or that, it wasn’t so pleasant.” I was so grateful that he would talk to you, and work on the friendship and the relationships. So I ended up loving him to pieces and feeling really connected to him.

With this job, we’re all doing quite complicated, difficult things and everyone feels quite vulnerable. So it is a job to make these relationships work. I’m completely willing, because I know how much you guys put into [it]. Anyway, we’re sorry Jesse’s not here.

KD: I’m the most sorry, believe me. We’d be away from our kids, in a nice hotel room.

JC: Kirsten, shall we talk about working together?

KD: Yes. Jane wrote me a letter in my early 20s about working together. I saved it, as she is one of my favorite filmmakers. Her films were always an inspiration to me as an actress with the type of work I’d like to do in my own career. So Jane has always been one of the people at the forefront of those kind of performances for women.

JC: I was really in love with the work that you did with Sofia (Coppola) right back to ‘The Virgin Suicides’ – it was so mesmerizing and beautiful. Then to see you in ‘Melancholia’ – that was a brilliant performance. Then to find out that you’ve got the same birthday as me, as does Lars von Trier! This is how women work together. Then we sometimes talked about the role, right?

KD: Yes, we did.

JC: Kirsten said to me: “Don’t worry, Jane, I’ve got this. I’ve got it.” There was a lot of difficulty, actually, playing a drunk person or a person who was drinking a lot.

KD: Yes. I think she was like, “Any time you drink, just have Jesse record you.” We did it, and believe me, that was helpful.

DL: Kodi, I think you were also a discovery for most people in this film.

KSM: I originally auditioned for Phil, actually. Everyone wanted that role. Didn’t get it, but that’s okay.

Peter (is an) extremely layered character. When I originally read it, I wouldn’t have suspected that because he’s somewhat on a secret mission until about the last ten pages. You really see that he pulls something else off, which is really what attracted me to the role. It also had me reading the script immediately again after the first time that I read it, just to go through and make sure that that’s what I just experienced with this character. So I saw that there was a lot to play with and pull from and it would be an extremely challenging role, but a lot of fun as well.

After meeting Jane, I felt that she saw a certain potential in me that she could push me out of my comfort zone and the boundaries that I originally had, in terms of character development.

JC: Really? Tell me how. I never realized that.

KSM: Absolutely. I mean, it’s been something I’ve spoke about a lot, and it’s unfortunately been sound-bitten sometimes in some of these interviews – it sounds like I said “She made me extremely uncomfortable.” I didn’t mean that at all.

But just in terms of creativity, we all, I guess, have our approach when it comes to developing a character and creating a world for the character. But I feel like if I went on this endeavor with just my own tools and my own approach, then it wouldn’t have been anything near what I saw on the screen and the performance that I’m so proud of. Thanks to Jane, I feel like you took me through a lot of different techniques, and pushed me out of my comfort zone in a good way.

JC: This is a very modest young man, because when he arrived, we just jumped straight into an improvisation. I came in the door and he looks like Peter. So I started to pretend like I was interviewing him as Peter. Neither of us quite knew what was going on, but we went along with it.

KSM: Yes, we did. I believed there was supposed to be sides or something, and I thought it was a general meeting and we met there and we just (improvised).

JC: So I just pretended he was Peter and was asking about his mother, and immediately I could see how brilliant Kodi could be as this character. I was so excited – he was already fantastic. I was thinking “Oh my god, we’ve got a Peter that’s better than the Peter in the book!”

KSM: That’s so sweet. I’m in love with his more grounded side. I relate to that. He’s an intellectual, and a hermit – he’s very alone. He studies life and is passionate about life, and he’s extremely curious. One thing I really love about him is he’s extremely courageous and confident in himself.

Being someone who’s kind of a feminine myself, I feel like there was a lot I could take on and learn about him, and things that I had to experience in my own life. My dad’s six foot six, bikey and covered in tattoos, and that was something that I knew I was never really going to grow into that. I had to really embrace who I was in that same way that (Peter) did. So I really enjoyed playing that.

DL: I also wanted to bring Ari into the conversation. Is this is your first time working with Jane?

AW: We’d actually met briefly before. We did a commercial. It was a very short shoot, but this is definitely a journey we’d not been on before.

Q: Ari, you have shot some of the most striking films of the last few years, like ‘Lady Macbeth’ and ‘In Fabric.’ Jane, how did you decide to work with Ari on this project, and figure out the visual language for the film?

JC: I’d also say some of Ari’s shorts were really incredibly beautiful. The camera language in them was stunning, and having worked with her on the short, it was like a little icebreaker, really, wasn’t it?

AW: Yes.

JC: I felt that this is a very masculine story we were telling, but I didn’t want to abandon all the ladies. I thought, I’ll have a female director of photographer (DP), and wouldn’t it be brilliant if it could be Ari, and we could go on this adventure together.

Ari was really open to the idea of a really, really long pre-production period, which I think is absolutely vital in giving any project its full legs. We both knew it was a big stretch for both of us.

AW: Yes, but it was incredibly enjoyable. We started about a year before we shot, knowing more or less the location where we might shoot. We wanted to see it at the time of year when we would be shooting, so that was a whole year before the cameras started rolling. We were walking up hills and down valleys, trying to find the Burbank ranch and the mountain range that could be so iconic.

Like you were saying about the relationship, just getting to know each other was important because a film shoot is quite an intense experience. It can be so lovely when you’ve got a friend and ally versus someone you’ve really just met six weeks ago.

JC: Yes, I think we made really good friends. I love Ari – she’s amazing. We also spent a long time discussing the language of the film that we wanted to use photographically, and trying to describe and think about it. I think we got there. We never quite put words to it, did we?

AW: No.

JC: We also talked a lot about the characters and Ari’s a (DP) that works from a deep interest in character and story, which is lovely. When the visuals are really embedded inside the mechanics and the themes of the story, then they’re so much more meaningful than just looking beautiful.

AW: Yes, I think the most definition we got to was for every frame, we knew what the information was, and we had absolute clarity of information, which seems quite simple. But to know what that information is takes quite a lot of attention to detail and work. But to do that, you need to know everything.

JC: There’s the other side, too, which is not intellectual at all. That’s like the work that you did with Benedict in the sacred place with the scarf; it was just me, you and Benedict, and we didn’t really know what he was going to do next. We just had to be highly intuitive and sit in a situation where you could try things.

BC: Yes. With Ari, there was a huge amount of freedom with being able to ignore the trappings of a camera following your movement. I felt unobserved and free to do what I needed to do in the space.

AW: Yes. I think that’s one of the amazing things about you, Jane, that you allow everyone to be vulnerable. I think the three of us were all in that willowy glade at that point. We’re all vulnerable and open to not knowing what was going to happen. We also knew that there’s no such thing as a mistake, and we could just take a risk. I really love that sequence – it’s one of my favorites in the film.

JC: I think you’ve got to take risks and trust, and there’s really no other way around it.

DL: Jane, earlier, you said you were trying not to use the phrase toxic masculinity while discussing the film. Why was it important to you to not use that phrase?

JC: You hear that phrase so much that you begin to wonder if it means anything. I think we do know it means something. I am really interested in both concepts of femininity and masculinity and how they play out in our lives because I believe it’s in everybody, and we all have both.

Also, when we deal with alpha males, it’s painful – they’re so dominating. I’m interested in that because I have to put up with it.

DL: A lot of people have pointed out that this is your first film that focuses on men. But masculinity is a theme that you have explored in your earlier films. Do you see this as a departure from your other films?

JC: I do see this as a departure, in fact, almost like a bookend. If you look at ‘The Piano,’ you’re clearly looking at much more from a much more feminine perspective. I see this as a bookend of another large landscape film, exploring another kind of masculine myth. Savage has helped me find a piece, really, that I could feel really happy (about), and it took me a little bit to find my feet in it.

But also I did a lot of psyche and dream work just to help me really explore that. I didn’t want to stand back from it – I wanted to really go in there. From my point of view, if you imagine what Phil was feeling, you’d see they’ve been so suppressed.

It was a challenge, and once I got in there, I really enjoyed it. Also, the male actors I working are my friends. Friendship can (outrank) everything in a way, I think. There’s a way where we just accept each other as individuals and personalities.

Ben, what do you think? Does it make a big difference being directed by a woman?

BC: I wasn’t gender aware, do you know what I mean? I was just working with a really talented director, and someone who I trust. Of course you brought a sensibility (to the film), which was about your life experience and your work. I’m very glad it was you directing this film – but your entirety, not just your gender.

JC: Thank you.

DL: Jane and Ari, how did you conceive of the landscape, which you found in New Zealand, as a character? For the actors, how did you approach working against this landscape?

AW: It’s a big question, but yes, we did shoot in New Zealand, which sounds like a good stand-in. We spent a long time thinking in depth about finding the right places. I’m sure everyone has their own personal connection with the landscape in this film. But for me, that sense of scale in isolation, as well as Phil’s relationship to the mountains, was mainly important. But the way I looked at it was that it important to set up the scale in isolation.

I also thought that by the time we meet Rose and she arrives to this place, you as a viewer know what kind of place it is and how remote it is. You also how much trouble she is, and that she’s not going to get out of there in a hurry. That was my way in to set up the scale, brutality and remoteness.

JC: Well, I’ve come to it from a bit more of a sensualist point of view. I think the hills are really sexy – all those folds and crevices hiding secret little streams and things. I’m in love with landscape in a very powerful way.

I also agree with Ari in that I felt like these people were in the middle of an ocean, really – they were so isolated in the landscape. Of course, I did go and see the landscape that is Savage’s landscape in Beaverhead, Montana, and that’s amazing, as well.

But wasn’t so amazing was on being on the actual ranches in the hills that we were filming on in the Ida Valley. New Zealand can stand in for almost anywhere, like Middle Earth, Switzerland and now, Montana. It’s a chameleon; it really is a landscape actor.

BC: It is another character. Phil is the landscape; it’s in him. He’s the outdoors, and brings the outdoors indoors. For me, I had to literally lay in the earth for a while, just to feel it, hear the grass and see the clouds move. So I went to set a few times before we started filming.

I did a lot of that in Montana as well when I was out there. It’s hugely important, as it’s something that Phil has managed. It’s one of the only aspects of his life that he has total control over – this outward show of masculinity, where he knows how to work the land, the people of the land and the animals.

To be able to get that familiar with my character, it helped that I’m also outdoorsy; that’s definitely something I have in common with my character. I love nature, and that immersion was key for me to find him. So it was my ally. I felt it was something to have that as a backdrop.

I was panicked about stepping out into a car park in Auckland doing set work. I was worried about it because it felt so natural being on that plain under the shadow of those hills.

JC: When I see the film now, I really see how Phil relaxes in nature. You only really see him calm, without the masculine front and alpha performance that he puts on for the other cowhands.

BC: His secret, sacred space is outside.

JC: Yes. He’s at his most loose, relaxed and natural outside.

(L-R): New York Film Festival’s Director of Programming, Dennis Lim; writer-director-producer, Jane Campion; actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee; and cinematographer Ari Wegner attended the New York Film Festival press conference for their Western, ‘The Power of the Dog.’

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As a life-long fan of entertainment, particularly films, television and music, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic. While still attending college, Karen began writing for Shockya during the summer of 2007, when she began writing horror movie reviews. Since she began writing for Shockya, Karen has been promoted to the position of Senior Movies & Television Editor. Some of her duties in the position include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, producing posts on celebrity news and contributing reviews on albums and concerts. Some of her highlights include attending such festivals and conventions as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto After Dark, the Boston Film Festival and New York Comic-Con.

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